J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Conspiracy theories of the Revolution

On 19 July 1775, the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles of Newport devoted a fair amount of his journal to recording a story that even he (who was a sucker for these sorts of tales) had deemed "incredible":

Capt. Jno. Hansen formerly of N York now of St. Crux a Danish Settlem’t where he has a Plantation, came to N York last Week. He says in settling some Accounts at Hispaniola on a Contract for supplying the Kings Timber stores he was obliged to go to Paris—where he became intimately acquainted with the Pretender’s Secretary.

Once while he was in his Office the Secr’y removed an unsealed packet which stepping out he left on the Table. Capt. Hanson read & found it from Ld North & the Earl of Bute [present and past First Ministers of Britain]—informing that the Plan was almost finished; that the Draught of Troops for America would soon leave Engld so defenceless that the Pretender with 20 Thousd Troops might land & march all over Engld &c &c &c.

Capt. Hansen instantly escaped & absconded carrying off the Packet—came to Engld & informed Ld North that he was possessed of this secret Correspondence. Ld North offered him a pension of £1000. for Secrecy. At length he persuaded him to take up with £500 per ann. with a promise of further Provision of £500 more. Having obtained this Hansen came home to St. Cruz.

But this Spring hearing of the Battle of Lexington & find’g America deluged in War he says his Conscience affected him, knowing he was possessed of a secret which would settle the whole & bring the Authors of all the Mischief to Punishment. He accordingly came to N York & opened the matter to the Congress there, which is said to credit the Informa. & have sent Capt. Hanson to lay it before the Continental Congress.

Mr. Ledyard &c received this Acco. from the mouth of Capt. Hanson himself at N York last Friday, & told it to Capt. Warner of Newp’t yesterday, Who told it me. The Thing is incredible. Or even if true, it will come to Noth’g—because Ld North doubtless retook the Packet—& the Ministry will wink away oral Testimony, as in the Burn’g of the Dockyard, & in the Proofs of the Princess Dowager receiv’g a Million, Earl of Bute half a Million, & 2 other Cronies a quarter Million each from France for the Peace of 1763. If Hanson was wise eno’ to retain the Letters—he has it in his Power to convince & open the Eyes of the King & the Nation, & restore Tranquillity.
By the end of his entry, Stiles was seriously considering that top ministers of the British government had provoked all the trouble in America so as to tie up the army, letting the Stuart Pretender sail from France and seize power. If only Capt. Hanson had kept his documentary proof, Stiles lamented, then the whole conspiracy could be exposed and the rift between Britain and America healed.

Stiles was far from the only man of the time entertaining what looks like an outlandish conspiracy theory. After the long war, Roger Lamb, who had served as a sergeant in the British Army, started his account of the conflict with this explanation:
The French, who have for many ages been the professed and natural enemies of Britain, had long viewed, with equal envy and apprehension, the flourishing state of the colonies in North America. No doubt at present subsists, that they began immediately after the peace of Paris to carry into execution the scheme they had formed for the separation of the British colonies from the mother country, conscious that, whilst a good understanding subsisted between Great Britain and her colonies the superiority must henceforth remain for ever on the side of Britain. It was only by their disunion that France could hope to regain the station and consequence she had formerly possessed in Europe.

The first step taken by France to secure this object was to employ her secret emissaries in spreading dissatisfaction among the British colonists; and the effects produced by her machinations were precisely such as she had intended and expected. The disposition of the inhabitants of North America began gradually to alter from that warmth of attachment to the mother country which had so particularly characterized them.
"Secret emissaries" of the French spreading dissatisfaction among the colonists! A devious plan indeed, considering how unpopular the French government was in the colonies until after the war had started. Lamb, writing in Dublin for a British audience, couldn't concede that the American colonists might have felt dissatisfied all on their own.

Both these passages are examples of the conspiracy theories that floated throughout eighteenth-century British-American politics. They also seem like examples of paranoid hoohah. Looking back now, we have to wonder how anyone could take them seriously.

But of course such theories are a steady presence in our history. In a 1964 essay, Richard Hofstader dubbed this the "Paranoid Style in American Politics," and traced it back to the Bavarian Illuminati scare of the 1790s. Gordon S. Wood went further back in his 1982 essay in the William & Mary Quarterly called "Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style: Causality and Deceit in the Eighteenth Century." Hofstader was responding primarily to McCarthyist accusations. Wood, on the other hand, was looking at what created widespread "paranoid" thinking in the Revolutionary period, and I find his essay very useful in considering passages like the two above.

In a nutshell, Wood argues that gentlemen of the eighteenth century were Newtonians: they understood much of the world in terms of the laws of motion. If a ball suddenly started rolling, something must have pushed it. Similarly, if a political movement started rolling, someone must have pushed that to get it started. Gentlemen of the time had only a rudimentary understanding of how economic forces worked without people guiding them; Adam Smith didn't introduce the concept of the "invisible hand" in The Wealth of Nations until 1776.

Those gentlemen also had little experience in mass politics, thinking of governing as rich and educated men making decisions on behalf of the country. Most resisted thinking of "the mob" as having rational, economic desires underlying their angry or destructive actions. Only their fellow gentlemen thought in economic and political terms.

Finally, few men seem to have applied our concept of the "law of unintended consequences," which even now people like to invoke in regard to any initiative they oppose (and tend to neglect in regard to any initiative they support). The notion that an action could be well intended and yet produce poor and unexpected results didn't make sense in a Newtonian world.

Add all that together, and Revolutionary-era gentlemen came up with this picture:
  • If there's trouble, someone must have started it.
  • If crowds are angry, someone richer and smarter must be directing them.
  • If policies are producing harm, someone must have planned that all along.
All that was left was to identify who someone was. The Pretender? The French? Corrupt governors? Mad incendiaries?

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